Moveable Inks Move Me

Contributed by Deb Lestenkof

The painting wasn’t going anywhere. Yes, it was a pretty scene of flowers, and yes, it looked good. Decent, even. But I wasn’t amazed. In the past, I’d played with many mediums to express my creativity and laughed off the term “painter”. I’d sewn sceneries with colorful fabrics, speckled patches of little flowers to add detail and larger, bold colors to make a statement. I’d crocheted for years and became skilled enough to read detailed patterns. I reveled in thick, lush handspun yarns and wooly textures. I played with paper crafts and enjoyed even hand pressing my own paper using recycled bits and pieces. Soaking the remnants of junk mail, bills and old homework in coffee, felt somehow therapeutic while transforming it into beautiful homemade cardstock that I could send out as cards to friends. 

But painting? I just didn’t get. Or better said, it didn’t get me. These flowers on canvas staring back at me looked cold, lifeless. I used every bright color and combination of my acrylics that I could find, but they still looked frozen in time. “Make me dance,” they said. So I tried. I started using watercolors to incorporate movement into my paintings. Water did help with what my art professor called “happy accidents” but still, the colors didn’t burst. I painted layer over layer trying to get a level of depth that would dramatically jump off the walls, but still it didn’t excite me. 

That’s when I found alcohol inks. My scrapbooking friends had used them in the past to alter smooth surface items like dominoes, dice and metals. The idea of using little droppers of deeply pigmented inks was intriguing, but I had no idea how they worked. A friend passed her collection of inks on to me, but I wasn’t sure how to use them. A few YouTube videos later, I noticed that some people used the inks on jewelry or small ceramics that had been wiped down with rubbing alcohol. The brilliantly colored inks want to immediately spread off the surface, so you must take care in using small amounts and work quickly before they blend together and swirl right off. The challenge to get these mysterious and jewel-like colors to stop where you want them to seems impossible, and that’s what got me excited.  Mission accepted. 

I went out and bought a very large, smooth ceramic tile from the hardware store. I wondered if I could use the inks as paint and created my own method of dripping them on the tile and moving them around with a paintbrush dipped in alcohol. I loved the effects! Colors swirled with excitement as if mischievously daring me to make sense of what they were doing. I chased the slick surface of luxurious tones across the tile and splashed more ink here to darken, more rubbing alcohol there to lighten. I began to use a straw to blow the spinning ink in the direction I wanted, while gently blowing it to dry in certain places. Using a tiny brush, I found I can control the flow and push it back in place where it needs to go. By the way, I also quickly learned that too much ink would quickly seize up on the tile, creating “mud”- a thick, grainy pile of black grit. So I must contain uncontrollable ink that dances off the surface but not use too much, make sure the colors don’t overmix and work quickly so they don’t dry and cling to the tile? Gotcha, I can do this. 

Many thousands of hours (and weeks) later, I not only found my own painting style, but explored many methods to showcase these wonderful, multi-faceted inks. I experimented with high grain alcohol and added glycerin which made the inks flow even more and dry to a glass-like shine. I burned it while wet to evaporate the rubbing alcohol and leave the vibrant inks behind. I’ve begun using it on metals and aluminum to reflect the transparent hues and speckled effects.

I’m inspired by not only the effects that can be achieved by the (never-ending) attempts to control these vibrant inks, but by how they aptly depict my environment. Scenes of water and clouds bloom and spread like wispy featheriness, splatters from the tip of my brush create abstract, wild movement in animals and scenery. Since alcohol inks can create so much movement and transcendental feeling, I like to stray from visual distraction and instead focus on one subject as my focal point - the stoic stare of a bear or wolf eyeing you down, a moose coming out of a garden or a bird taking flight. My environment gives me rich inspiration to paint from; my inks perfectly help me capture the always changing settings around me. Endless summer skies and warm fall sunsets sizzle off the tile in a way no other medium could begin to compare.

At long last, I found my kindred spirit. I’m not sure if it’s because this medium is as independent and stubborn as I am, or I finally found something as willful as I. Maybe like Alaska’s beauty and wildlife, it can’t be tamed. Perhaps it’s the heightened sense of fulfillment I get when I can make my piece take on a recognizable form. Whatever the case, I’m hooked and found my soulmate. It gets me and I get them. I might even go as far as to call myself a painter. 

Deb Lestenkof loves discussing art, teaching others how to use alcohol ink and finding their own creative voice. More of her work can be found at and